“Two Tramps in Mud Time” is one of the great American poems about work. Robert Frost here calls into question how we define work. He considers who should get to, or have to, do various kinds of work.
I am often struck by how much of “work” in human societies is really just a social agreement among people to look busy. Capitalism involves a rhetoric of lean, mean, ever-more-efficient production. But corporate employees spend an enormous amount of time in pointless meetings. (Academic employees spend even more time in them.) Retail employees bustle about moving things from one place to another, solicitous of customers to the point of aggravation.
Even more interesting is the “work” done not for the market but for the psychological and social well-being of the worker. In the 18th and 19th centuries, upper-middle-class (sometimes even upper-class) ladies would constantly “work” at embroidery or other sewing projects. This needlework had some economic benefit, but it was inefficient; it was done really out of a sense that idleness was not good for individuals or their communities. Today in American suburbs, people get out of work on the weekends and … go back to work: on their homes, their cars, their boats, their craft projects. Is such work play? Is play perhaps as important as work?
“My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation,” says Frost’s speaker. Being a poet and a self-sufficient farmer (at least in this dramatic situation), he has the rare opportunity to combine the two. Or perhaps his assertions themselves are “play.” Does he really need to split the wood himself? It’s as if someone out for a jog met someone else running for their life. How do you defend playing at something so serious?
As so often in Frost’s poetry, the absolute plainness and matter-of-fact quality of the language is its great beauty. The phrasing of the poem is so perfect and so confident that I suspect a metaphor in the great lines about splitting logs:
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
When a great poet is on his game, even in play, the lines fall “splinterless” onto the page.